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  • Alastair Sim

    Today's DNB Life of the Day:

    This version: 06 January 2011


    Sim, Alastair George Bell (1900–1976), actor and director, was born on 9 October 1900 at Lothian Road, Edinburgh, the youngest in the family of two sons and two daughters of Alexander Sim, tailor and clothier, and his wife, Isabella McIntyre. He was educated at the James Gillespie School at Edinburgh, which he left at the age of fourteen, taking successive jobs as a delivery boy, a clerk with Gieves the outfitters, and, later, a post in the borough assessor's office. He had ideas, at this time, of becoming an analytical chemist and was studying at Edinburgh University, leaving it to join the Officers' Training Corps. The war ended before he had any opportunity of putting his military training to the test.

    Sim's first connection with the stage was from 1925 to 1930 when he was Fulton lecturer in elocution at New College, Edinburgh, a post which he obtained as a result of his work in the Edinburgh Provincial Training Centre. While holding this post he established his own school of drama and speech training. It was in Edinburgh that he first met Naomi Merlith Plaskitt [see below]. They married on 2 August 1932 and she was able to help him, professionally and enthusiastically, throughout his subsequent career. They had one daughter, Merlith Naomi.

    At the comparatively late age of thirty Sim played his first part on the professional stage, doubling the roles of messenger and sentry in the Savoy Theatre production of Othello (1930) in which Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft played the principal parts. This was followed by two years at the Old Vic. He was then out of action for a year with a slipped disc which was put right by an osteopath, and in the mid-1930s his face and personality became increasingly familiar to audiences in a series of film comedies and comedy-thrillers: the Inspector Hornleigh series, Edgar Wallace's The Squeaker (1937), Alf's Button Afloat (1938), and Wedding Group (1936), in which Sim played the Scottish minister and his wife the maid-of-all-work.

    A return to the stage and to more serious work was signalled by the last of the pre-war Malvern drama festivals where he took one of the leading parts in What Say They? (1940) by O. H. Mavor (James Bridie). It was the beginning of a valuable, though not always peaceful, association as Bridie wrote and Sim both acted in and directed plays of the calibre of Mr Bolfry (1943), Dr Angelus (1947), The Forrigan Reel (1945), and Mr Gillie (1950).

    It was in Mr Bolfry that Sim introduced one of his best-remembered directorial touches. The play dealt with a confrontation between a Scots minister and the devil. As written by Bridie (who, said James Agate, could never construct a satisfactory third act) the devil turned out to be an escaped lunatic. Sim reacted strongly against the feebleness of this. He insisted 'the Devil must be the Devil'. The difficulty was how to get him off the stage at the end of the play and back where he belonged. Sim's solution was a coup de théâtre. The devil, off stage at that point, had left his umbrella propped in a corner. The door opened. No one appeared. The umbrella picked itself up and walked slowly out by the far door.

    The death of Bridie in 1951 put an end to this fruitful association and in some ways Sim never achieved the same magical alchemy which results when the separate talents of author, actor, and director are fused into a single whole. He gave many notable performances on stage and screen. On the screen he played in Scrooge (1951) and (fondest memory for many) The Happiest Days of your Life (1950) with Margaret Rutherford. He was also memorable in The Belles of St Trinian's (1954) and Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957). On the stage there were William Golding's The Brass Butterfly (1958), annual appearances as the sardonic old Etonian Captain Hook in Barrie's Peter Pan, and towards the end of his career two notable successes at the Chichester Festival, both of which came subsequently to the West End, The Magistrate (1969) and Dandy Dick (1973) by A. W. Pinero.

    In 1948 Sim achieved a remarkable feat, being elected rector of Edinburgh University by a majority greater than that achieved by any of his predecessors (who included prime ministers and a field marshal). His address ('the only one of eight that I have actually been able to hear', said Bridie) was delivered to that most critical of audiences, with all his professional skill. As one reads it one can hear it being spoken, in the inimitable Sim manner: the clipped words, the sardonic intonation, the crocodile smile. His own character appears in every line:

    I admit that even to this day I enjoy being called an artiste, and if anyone likes to qualify it with some such adjective as ‘great’, ‘incomparable’, ‘superb’, then you can rely on me to finish the ritual by reacting with becoming modesty. But I shall know it is all nonsense.

    He was as devastating at the pricking of pomposity in others as in himself.

    Sim was made an honorary LLD of Edinburgh University in 1951 on his retirement as rector, appointed CBE in 1953, and refused the knighthood offered to him by Edward Heath on the grounds that it would be ridiculous to be addressed as Sir Alastair. He died in London on 19 August 1976 and was survived by his wife. There is a portrait of him by Edward Seago in the Garrick Club of which he was a long and enthusiastic member and from which he regularly threatened to resign.

    Sim's wife, Naomi Merlith Sim [née Plaskitt] (1913–1999), actress and writer, was born on 30 November 1913 at 30 The Embankment, Bedford, the younger daughter of Hugh Plaskitt (1880–1917), an alcoholic solicitor, and his Scottish wife and cousin, Norah Frances (1880–1963), daughter of Colonel David Cowie, army officer. They separated in 1913 and Norah Plaskitt brought up the daughters; Hugh Plaskitt died on 12 November 1917 of malaria contracted while on active service as a lance-corporal in the Army Service Corps in Africa. Naomi was educated at Bedford high school, a school in Callander, Perthshire, and St George's High School for Girls, Edinburgh. Keen on acting, at twelve she was in the Scottish Community Drama Association production of Yeats's The Land of Heart's Desire. There she met and fell in love with Sim. At fourteen she left school and became a pupil at his school of drama and speech training; she later became his secretary. In 1930 she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but after her two years there gave up any thought of an acting career: 'Alastair was always the most important thing in my life' (The Independent, 16 Aug 1999). Following their marriage she devoted herself to his career. They appeared together in one film, Wedding Group (1936). Generous and hospitable they quasi-adopted several young people, including George Cole (later in the St Trinian's films and the television series Minder). After Sim's death Naomi wrote an autobiographical memoir, Dance and Skylark: Fifty Years with Alastair Sim (1987), and contributed to The Oldie magazine. She died on 3 August 1999 at Forrigan Bungalow, Newnham Hill, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, following a stroke. She was survived by her daughter, Merlith.


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